Video: Frustrated by FEMA

By Bob Sullivan Technology correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 10/19/2005 2:53:59 PM ET 2005-10-19T18:53:59

Ariane Muse was 8 months pregnant when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, where she had been renting a tiny basement apartment. The 20-year-old single-mom-to-be had been doing everything she could to save money. She even shared the phone line with her landlord, an old family friend. 

Katrina chased Muse from New Orleans, all the way to  Hampton, Ga., where she found a temporary bed with another family friend. There was no time to register for federal government emergency aid; Mother Nature had other plans for her. 

Within a few days, bad news turned good, and she gave birth to a baby boy named Lilpon. Her next step: a call to Federal Emergency Management Agency to apply for the $2,000 that was being given to New Orleans evacuees. And that's when one more bout of bad news came. FEMA turned her down.

“I thought it was unbelievable," she said. "How could they do something like that?”

Here's how: By the time Muse applied for a FEMA grant, her landlord had already received FEMA funds.  Muse was caught in a database trap. As part of its fraud screening procedures, the FEMA system wouldn’t allow two applications with the same phone number. 

For the past three weeks, her application has been "on hold," she says. She checks FEMA’s Web site every day looking for good news, and hoping that FEMA will change its mind. But she’s losing hope.

"It's been so long, and now we are hearing that FEMA is not giving any more money," she said.

That's not true; FEMA is still making millions of dollars in grants each day.  But rumors have dogged FEMA's hurricane assistance program from the start, as victims speculate wildly on what criteria the agency is using to dole out funds.  The speculation is fueled in part by stories of people like Muse, who have fallen through the cracks of the recovery effort.

FEMA's massive no-strings-attached $2,000 grant program -- called expedited assistance -- is in the cross-hairs.

Flood of complaints
A month after hurricane Katrina hit, FEMA cut off its “expedited assistance” program, saying it had done its job. Hundreds of people who have sent emails to MSNBC.com disagree. The emails, complaining about the FEMA program, were sent in response to a news story about "expedited assistance" published on this web site last week. About half of the emails were from people who said they had been unfairly denied FEMA aid. 

FEMA officials concede the enormous grant process – which so far has given about $2 billion to 1 million victims – has been hit with glitches.  But the agency is slowly working through the problems and pledges to help as many victims as possible.

Video: Frustrated by FEMA (on this page) “The sheer magnitude of this event requires a little bit of patience,” said Nicole Andrews, a FEMA spokeswoman. 

Expedited assistance was designed to be a no-strings-attached $2,000 payment to all hurricane victims to help them deal with immediate evacuation and aftermath expenses.  But hundreds of hurricane victims said they were denied aid for arbitrary reasons.  One typical maddening scenario: Computer glitches on FEMA’s Web site caused many victims to apply multiple times, which in turn caused their applications to be tagged for suspected fraud.

Because displacement was one criteria used to determine eligibility, quirks hit others who happened to apply for aid while still in their hometown. In one case, a resident who initially contacted FEMA during an inspection of his destroyed home was denied benefits -- the operator ruled that since he was at his home, he didn't need aid.  Others who stayed behind to work in emergency services and camped near their damaged homes were given the same explanation.

But most snafus often had the flavor of an unforgiving database.

"Due to computer problems with the online application, we inadvertently had duplicate applications," wrote Sean Nolan of New Orleans.  "Because of this we have received nothing and even though we have repeatedly spoken to the FEMA helpline, there is no answer as to when it will get resolved."

Criteria was unclear
“I’m sure that’s completely frustrating,” Andrews said.  FEMAs systems did kick out applications that had redundant information, such as similar addresses, to prevent fraud. But she said people in Muse’s case are entitled to expedited assistance grants – and they should appeal.

Complaining of jammed phone lines and other hurdles, many of those who emailed MSNBC.com wrote that the appeals process seemed futile, while others were not aware that they could appeal.

Harried phone operators may have been part of the problem, said Andrews. FEMA now has 12,000 operators answering the phones – many are on loan from the Internal Revenue Service, she said.

“Maybe you have a FEMA operator who is well versed in FEMA programs, maybe you don’t,” she said.

Katrina victims say they were denied assistance because they had homeowners’ insurance, for example – which wasn’t the criteria for expedited assistance,  Andrews said.  FEMA issued a press release Oct. 8 in an attempt to reign in some of the rumors and misinformation.

Andrews said qualification terms were simple. Those who were in mandatory evacuation areas and couldn't return to their homes after the storms were entitled to $2,000 instant grants.  But there are gray areas.  Eligibility is unclear for residents in some parts of Southeast Texas who didn’t evacuate initially, but left later when it became clear that power would not be restored for weeks.

Small business loans instead
In all, 2.3 million people have applied to FEMA for aid since Katrina hit.  Of those, a little more than 1 million qualified for expedited assistance. 

Many of those who didn’t qualify were sent packets suggesting they apply for Small Business Administration loans. That’s what happened to 79-year-old Grace Bush of Pascagoula, Miss., who wrote that she lost everything to flood damage, and after asking for help, was sent an SBA loan packet.

“Living on a fixed income, how could I repay a loan?” she said. “Do you have the answer to this or a solution for me beside the graveyard?”

Other reasons for denials cited by those who emailed MSNBC.com include:

  • Calling from a damaged home: Marty Marion, of Orange, Texas – near Beaumont -- was told he didn’t need relocation assistance because he happened to get through on FEMA’s phone line on the one evening he was inspecting his home.  “They asked me where (I was) calling from and I told them I was on a cell phone at my house. They said since I was at my house I did not qualify for assistance. I have been trying to explain to them that I have not been able to stay at my house but they will not listen”
  • Web site foibles – Duplicate applications raised fraud suspicions. Robert Ingram of New Orleans applied at the library and ended up feeling accused of fraud. “When I submitted my application the system went blank and I didn't know if it went through. I then resubmitted it a minute later. Weeks went by and I received nothing. Finally this past Sunday I reached FEMA by phone at 5 a.m.. …I  … spoke with a supervisor who told me since I applied twice that my case was "under investigation."  
  • Phone and Web site jammed until the clock ran out – Several writers said they simply couldn’t get through FEMA’s jammed phone and fax lines.  Then, there were practical problems of simply not being able to get to a working computer.  It's tough to apply 'on-line' or through telephone when you are charging up your cell phone with a generator powered by gas you spent half the day finding. Sylvia Weir of Beaumont, Texas. 
  • Lost in the mail - Taisha Adams of New Orleans was actually approved for her $2,000 weeks ago, but her check has been chasing her around the Gulf Coast. “FEMA stated to me that 3 weeks ago a check for $2,000 was sent to my New Orleans's address, then returned to Baton Rouge, then ended up at the convention center in Houston. I went to the convention center and they are stating that the check is still not there.”

Andrews said victims have a right to be frustrated, but said such snafus are inevitable in an aid program that sprouts this fast. 

“It does concern me. I want everyone who is eligible for assistance to receive it,” she said. 

'Please try your call again later'
Evacuees who were chased from their homes by Katrina or Rita should continue to call FEMA and appeal – and their funds will come, Andrews said.  But calling to appeal is easier said then done. When MSNBC.com called the FEMA help line on Monday, FEMA told us to call back.         

"Please try your call again later, or stay on the line for information that may be of interest to you.”

Kathleen Maston, a 47-year-old New Orleans resident now staying with family in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., said she was denied FEMA assistance because of a roommate situation – her former roommate applied before she did.  Now, she said she goes every day to the local FEMA office looking for news. She needs money to buy clothes for job interviews, and for transportation.

“People in the FEMA office know me by name. I drink their coffee and eat their sandwiches all day,” she said. “There are thousands of us out here in suspended animation.”

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